Dust to Dust

October 1984By Comments

Rufe Holland, giving me the deluxe drought tour, was clipping down a ranch road near Junction in his Ford pickup. In the bed were several fifty-pound sacks of government corn; at $100 a ton, it’s half the cost of store-bought feed. Ordinarily Holland’s stock would live off pasture grass, but thanks to the drought there is very little or none. So, like a lot of ranchers in the Hill Country, Holland has been feeding his livestock for more than a year, a proposition that can get feverishly expensive when you consider the appetities of a few thousand sheep and goats and a hundred or so cows. He was on his way to feed some sheep in one of his pastures – land that’s been in his family since the 1880s – talking, one hand on the wheel, the other pointing out the window at the land reeling by. “See those cow chips and rocks? When you get to where all you see is cow chips and rocks, that’s drought.” The cedar and scrub oak were green enough to deceive an outlander, but, like Rufe said, the ground was a different matter – it looked like the moon.

A day later and a little farther north, Bill Brown stopped his pickup in the middle of one of his pastures. He has leased land in the Hill Country near Fort McKavett and Menard for going on thirty years. Except for the scrub oak, prickly pear, and Brown’s drawl, it too could have been the moon. “To be perfectly honest with you, every hoof ought to be trucked off this place, but I’m sitting here waiting–waiting for it to rain.” It was hot and still. What little grass there was looking mangy. Over the bluff lay Brown’s failed hay crop, sizzled by the sun; he had planned to feed it to his cattle this coming winter. While he talked, I stared out the window at his rocks and cow chips.

The great middle of Texas is in a drought. While our extremities – East Texas and even the deserty Trans-Pecos – have had average or above average rainfall, most everything in between is parched and dusty. Stock tanks are dry or else what whater they do hold looks like the rheumy aperture of an old elephant’s eye. The land looks tired out. The drought runs roughly from Childress east to Sherman, south through Dallas to Corpus Christi, then into McAllen in South Texas, and northwest to Del Rio and San Angelo. Down in South Texas, where surface water is scarce and ranches are the size of principalities, some cattle are dying on the range before stockmen can get to them. Around San Angelo, which has similar surface-water shortages, ranchers are paying truckers to haul in water for their stock.

It rains during a drought – just never enough and seldom at the right time. One August day in the Hill Country, where I had gone to talk to drought-stricken ranchers, there was a pleasant morning shower. The rain took the dust out of the air, cheered people up, and, as ranchers say, greened up the turf (that is, the short pasture grass). But in terms of relieving the drought, the rain was next to useless. It had come too late to get the summer grasses going and too early to spur grasses for the onset of winter. It has been like that everywhere the drought has taken hold. So far this year it has rained only 6 to 12 inches – about half the normal rainfall (15 inches on the western end, 25 inches in the east). Some places have been bone-dry for three years, and in the Hill Country a morning shower can’t hide this ominous fact: rainfall has been decreasing steadily now for six years.

This drought is the sixth major one to hit Texas in the last hundred years. The first, in 1886, broke the backs of many new settlers; another struck during World War I; the next came during the Depression (it was called the Dust Bowl). But the worst and longest was the drought of the fifties – in some parts of the state it hardly rained for ten years. It was the worst, that is, until now – this drought is aggravated by economic perils that did not plague ranchers in the fifties. After the fifties drought, many ranchers were able to buy back land they had been forced to sell. But though the prices of the things ranchers produce (beef, lamb, wool) haven’t gone up much in the last thirty years, everything ranchers buy (gasoline, pickups, electricity, and, most of all, land) has gone up a lot. So today when ranchers talk about selling out – and many do – they mean forever; land values and interest rates will seal their fate. About the only thing that ranchers think is better about this drought than previous ones is that now their pickups are air-conditioned.

Texas droughts are so much a part of the fabric of our history, such community property, that it is disconcerting that anecdotes and memoirs about them haven’t been passed down as part of the common knowledge. Our inevitable droughts have marked our lives and will continue to do so just as profoundly as did the Battle of the Alamo or the ballots in Box 13. But it is almost as if we prefer to hide a painful truth from ourselves. We relegate the pertinent facts to history books, almanacs, and master’s theses, but we talk about drought only when there is one. You can find people who will talk about the fifties drought, but that’s only because there are still some people around who remember it. A woman I recently met, now a city-dwelling lawyer, has a vivid recollection of the drought on the small Hill Country ranch where she grew up. It has to do with hunting Easter eggs. Since the grass in the pastures was long gone, her parents had only one recourse. They hid the eggs behind the rocks and cow chips.

Even in the best of times, the Hill Country is big, quiet, empty country. Now it is eerily vacant. Ranchers have been culling their herds or liquidating them entirely. First rule of the range: You feed your livestock, if you can afford to, until you are putting more into their stomachs than they are worth at the stockyards. Second rule of the range: If you can’t afford to feed your livestock, you sell them off before they wreck your range. Rufe Holland is feeding, not selling. Like most ranchers around Junction, he runs a few cattle (he has 140 mother cows, and each has cost him about $275 in feed over the past year), but he is primarily a sheep and goat raiser; he has 1400 goats and 1100 sheep. They have been living on government corn to the tune of $50,000 a year. In good times, Holland wouldn’t have to pay a dime to feed his animals. His pasture grass would sustain them.

I met Holland on the day it rained, which might have had something to do with his elevated mood. Nevertheless, he struck me as a happy man. He is married to Zane Gardner, a gracious, lovely woman. They have three handsome children – a daughter and two sons. One son, Cole, has come back to Junction to help run the ranch. They can absorb the expense of the drought, assuming it isn’t interminable, although for a man who is 53, it’s a colossal pain in the neck. Just at a time in Rufe’s life when he could have slowed down a little, along came the drought. He drove an extra 20,000 miles this year to feed his livestock, a task that takes from morning to mid-afternoon and has to be done in addition to the routine jobs, which in the sheep and goat business are many.

Rufe and Zane, who are both fourth-generation ranchers, have inherited about 4000 acres, and they lease another 5500, some of that from relatives. They are typical of ranching families around Junction – older, kids grown, no debts on the land or livestock, and if they do need a loan they have the land for collateral. Though ranchers like Holland will survive this drought, that does not lessen his sympathy for others. “The people who are suffering the most,” he says, “are the young people who went into the business in the last eight or ten years, and they’re trying to carry a big debt load. If this drought would have come along ten or twelve years ago, when we needed money and had three kids in college, God almighty, it would have severely hurt us.”

The drought has one lasting effect on a man like Rufe Holland. It reminds him that it makes a hard calling harder and that Cole will have to contend with the inevitability of drought on diminishing territory if he wishes to continue in his father’s footsteps. The physics of the expanding universe do not apply to ranching. Given the geometric progression of families, ranch properties have been, and will continue to be, divided into successively smaller parcels. In the Hill Country there is a point at which a family’s holdings are simply too small to support livestock; the land becomes little more than a pet ranch. And as those holdings become smaller, people who want to stay in the ranching business have to lease more land, which is becoming more expensive, less profitable, and in times of drought an outright liability.

Bill Brown is a big, square man, quiet-spoken. He smokes unfiltered Pall Malls at a steady pace and seems a little melancholy, although it would be hard to say whether that is his nature or a drought-induced trait. He is 56 and stooped, and, like most ranchers his age, he walks stiff – as if his lumbar region has seized up on him. The drought has him by the neck.

Brown was born in Amarillo, grew up on a dairy farm near Fort Worth, and came to Menard after the Korean War with no money (“I had to borrow a hundred dollars to get on the bus to come out here”). He married a local rancher’s daughter, Susanna Landers, and they have raised three children, a daughter who lives with them and two sons who have left Menard County and do not plan to go into ranching.

Brown started out working for other ranchers, then began leasing his own land. And like a lot of men who started out ranching after World War II with no money and no inherited land, he has remained landless. What he could afford to do, and what he has done, is to put his investment – emotional as well as monetary – into his livestock. He has bred his own line of cattle, which he calls Brangwiss (part of Brahman, Angus, and Brown Swiss). He has selected his Spanish goats for good, meaty loins (the better to make cabrito), which a lot of ranchers don’t take the time or effort to do. He has developed a fine herd of Angoras; his billies are noted for, among other things, their thickly bearded chins, a sign of superior mohair production, according to some.

But during a drought everything can come crashing in on a leasing rancher. Ranchers who lease have no terra firma to show the banker. Their collateral is their livestock. During a drought, when they are most likely to need to borrow money, they are reluctant to part with any of that collateral; yet keeping their livestock can have serious consequences on the range. The cattle, and particularly the goats and sheep, gnaw the land down to the bone, and land that is thus abused takes longer to snap out of a drought than land that has even a little turf on it.

If this were the sixties, when land leased for $1.50 an acre, Brown could ride the drought out, but now he is paying an average of $5 an acre. His lease payments alone are something like $40,000 a year. When we were driving down a county road that bordered one of his leases, Brown could not quite hold back his frustration. “These ranch leases,” he said, waving his left arm out the window, “in the past each one of them supported a family, raised a family, educated a family. Now I’m having a hard time doing it will all of them.”

During a drought there comes a time when a rancher like Brown has no choice but to sell off some of his breeding stock. As a matter of course, stockmen sell about 10 per cent of their sheep and goats every year to weed out the mediocre animals. This year I stood in Brown’s pens and watched the county agent and an A&M goat specialist cull half of his Angora billies from the herd. Because his billies are such fine stock, they will bring Brown good money, but they represent the loss of years of careful and hard work. Amid the arcane and shouted counsel, usually in reference to hair quality or manliness – “he’s long, but he’s a little sparse,” “let’s take him out, he doesn’t have too large testicles,” “that may be the smallest, but he sure has the hair” – I began to feel uneasy, as if I were watching a private family affair. Ranchers are matter-of-fact about their livestock; they raise lambs, kids, and calves to sell to pay the bills. But they are possessive of their breeding stock. A herd of Angora nannies and proper number of billies to service them is a rancher’s art collection. They are, in the end, more than just collateral.

The cows at the Junction Stockyards were bawling like a chorus of mourning widow ladies, their squalls reverberating off the tin roofs of the big sheds. It was a Friday, cattle auction day, and although the din impressed me, it was a fairly slow morning for trading. Ranchers in the drought belt have been selling off cattle for a year now – the peak was this past June, when it became obvious that the spring rains were never going to come. The future of any cows that ranchers had left in August was riding on whether the fall rains started. Most ranchers said October 1 was the next decision day.

Last year three quarters of a million more cattle were sold in Texas than in nondrought years. Larry Brooks, the veterinarian in Junction, estimates that 80 per cent of the cattle in his area are gone. In good times, steers and heifers are the first to go into the auction ring. During drought, the cattle go in pairs of mother and offspring. The young ends up at a feedlot or a grassy pasture, in Montana or Kansas, for instance; the mother goes to the packer.

Prospective buyers can peer down at the goods from catwalks above the stockyard pens, but the ranchers on those planks were just window-shopping. No one will buy back cows until next spring, and then only if the drought has broken. The goods were poor. What we were looking down on mostly was bony backs, with hips and vertebrae etched through the hide in perfect scultural detail. Some ranchers, especially those who have already sold their cattle and banked the money, would say this stock belonged to bad range managers who should have pulled their stock off before they got into that condition; others would say it belonged to men who gambled that it would rain and lost.

One day I went up into the cedar brakes to meet the hackers – men, wetbacks in this case, who cut dead cedar off the range. They make $10 to $20 a day, plus food and lodging. The cedar is then hauled to one of the two factories near Junction, ground up, and steam-cooked to extract the oil (cedar oil is used as a base in perfumes and soaps). The leftover fiber is sold for various purposes, chiefly as a filler for oil-well drilling mud. The cedar oil mills have been a steady part of the Junction economy for twenty years. Business has picked up lately, however, because a lot of the ranchers are selling their dead cedar, at about $28 a ton. It is a way to clear the land, which ranchers are always looking to do, and to make a little money on the side.

But that is slim pickings, and with winter around the corner and a large portion of the livestock gone, ranchers are going into economic hibernation. Many of them can last at least through the next year. For one thing, they have the money from selling off their breeding stock, which is tax free for up to 24 months; they can live off the interest or, if worse comes to worst, nibble at the capital. And deer hunters, who can boost a rancher’s gross income by 15 per cent or more, will be arriving in mid-November.

In a town like Junction, where practically all of the 2600 inhabitants are inextricably tied to agriculture, everyone goes into hibernation where the ranchers do. As you might imagine, there are not enough poodles in Junction to tide Larry Brooks, the local bet, over until the cows come back – cows are his main line of work. Unlike a pet owner, a rancher wants something in return when he uses a vet. He is not inclined to pay a vet $25 to treat a $25 sheep, but he will invest $100 in a cow that will produce a calf worth $250. “If the drought goes on for two or three years, I’ll be gone,” says Brooks. “All these small towns will be in trouble, big trouble. The veterinarians, the doctors, the dentists, the pharmacists, the gas stations, everybody. They’d have to find another job in another place. I like this area. We’ve got four little boys, and I don’t want to put them in the city. It drove me crazy earlier in the spring. I couldn’t sleep, worrying, and I finally said, ‘We’ll just do what we can do and see what happens.'” Long pause. “But it’s going to rain. It’s going to rain.”

Larry Brooks was not the only person I talked to who ended his discourse with that sentiment. The biggest fear of ranchers and of those tied to the ranchers’ economy is that this drought will be as long-lived as the drought of the fifties was. If it does last that long, it is not hard to imagine Junction, Menard, Rocksprings, Ballinger, Paint Rock, Floydada, Paducah, Cotulla, Uvalde – all those towns that form the backbone of Texas’ ranch country – as dusty, windswept ghost towns, the expanses littered with the last bones of livestock that some rancher couldn’t quite bring himself to sell. It is such an ominous thought that I have taken up the ranchers’ refrain. It is going to rain. But short of reciting that incantation, there’s not much to do but wait it out.

There were no signs of drought at Junction’s forty-eighth annual billy sale. It began shortly after 10 a.m. on a Saturday in August, a day that was hot but breezy, the blue sky hung with voluptuous cumulus clouds. The arena was a snug open-air room with white bleachers built around a stage where the objects of all the commotion – 104 Angora billy goats – would be displayed and sold to the highest bidders. The arena was attached to a large shed that temporarily housed the billies; from it, depending on the direction of the breeze, wafted the fragrance of lanolin and urine.

About two hundred people were in attendance, with a slight preponderance of men, many of whom wore boots, blue jeans, pale-colored shirts, and while straw cowboy hats. The auctioneer, who knew most everyone there, cajoled and wheedled his friends to get the prices up. A man from Uvalde by the name of Dick Herndon paid $5100, an all-time record price for Hill Country Angora auctions, for the best billy. (When he took that billy off, Herndon didn’t put it in a trailer either; he loaded it into his air-conditioned Suburban – with his family.) The goats brought a total of $68,400. It seemed like high times for a drought.

People in the city have a perverse notion, perhaps instilled by the classic photographs of the Dust Bowl era, that hard times in the country manifest themselves in obvious ways. But that’s not necessarily true. In the first place, ranchers are difficult to read, so it isn’t easy to tell whom that drought is hurting. One man driving a Cadillac may have mortgaged his land to buy it; another in an old Ford pickup might be able to buy and sell the man in the Cadillac; still another, in an even older Ford, might be exactly what he seems, a rancher who is just getting by. Second, ranchers are inured to drought. They are doing what they want to do, what they know how to do, with the full knowledge that in some seasons it will not rain.

Rufe Holland speaking: “There are two things you know are going to happen here. You’re going to have a drought. Then it’s going to break and you’re going to have green, you know, you’re going to grow some grass. Things are going to get better. Then you’re going to go back into another drought. That’s absolutely certain. You’ve got to live for the drought.”

Related Content